During the pandemic grocery store workers were praised as heroes, applauded for keeping shelves stocked and continuing to work face-to-face with customers who may or may not have been following COVID protocols. They were deemed “essential workers,” and they finally got the recognition they deserved—for a few months. But as people grew weary of everything the pandemic wrought, the appreciation for these employees waned, and soon many of the perks offered by higher-ups disappeared. Now those workers are standing up for themselves and unionizing, and in the case of 47,000 California grocery workers, they are ready to strike.
CBS News reports that employees at hundreds of Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons, and Pavilions voted last week to authorize a strike if things break down during contract negotiations, which are set to start up again tomorrow. Through the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) the workers are asking specifically for a $5/hour raise and more COVID protections. These are provisions that grocery store employees across the country are now asking for.
To get more information on what that looks like on the ground, I reached out to a longtime Chicago-based Whole Foods worker who was the first to organize at their particular store, who we’ll call Sam (they asked to remain anonymous as the company has a notorious record of union busting).
“COVID shed a huge light on the way in which grocery store workers are valued within companies and also within society, and I think people who were actually happy with their jobs started to see that for the first time,” Sam says. “The main reason I want to organize is because of my relationship with my coworkers. I see the power and the potential in them and I want to protect that and create a better work environment for what they deserve.”
When it comes to actionable items, health insurance and better wages are at the top of the list, and in the case of Whole Foods in particular it’s about reinstating some pandemic-induced protocols, like hazard pay, and reversing others, like shorter breaks so that employees can spend more time on the floor to “better serve customers.”
Specific asks from the Whole Foods organizers that may be made by any grocery store union include:
- Health insurance for part-time workers
- Higher wages
- Better paid time off, better sick leave
- Better working conditions and updated equipment
- Better COVID protocols and tracing
- More regulated breaks
- Hazard pay as the pandemic continues
- Sensitivity trainings, anti-racism trainings, and more protections for marginalized folks
The bottom line is, once you have a union, any issues will be heard and can be addressed through a union.
If you’re a worker looking to organize your particular store, the best first step is reaching out to other organizers within your company if they exist and/or touching base with representatives from a larger union, like the UFCW. Then it’s time to start taking the temperature of your coworkers.
“Try to recruit two other people in your store who are reliable and who are just as mad as you are and create a map of everyone who works in your store and get to know everyone,” Sam says. “Talk to people about what the problems are with the store and the reasons why they come to work, what they’re not getting that they need.”
Sam warns to be careful of when you discuss unionizing—workers using the “U word” on the clock may be targeted and disciplined or even fired. So the next step is to set up time outside of company hours to discuss organizing demands and plans, either in person or via Zoom.
Set up social media accounts for getting the word out about your mission to unionize and educate the public about the issues going on at the store—at the Chicago Whole Foods, this took the form of a social media blitz and recruiting non–Whole Foods workers from other unions and mutual aid groups to hand out fliers to customers entering the store detailing what the workers are asking for and other problems with the company.
“Many people choose Whole Foods in particular because they have a perception of what they’re getting,” Sam says, noting that these fliers are often created to challenge those ideas. “‘I shop at Whole Foods because of this moral ground, but where is my money actually going?’”
Organizing, especially within major corporations, doesn’t always come easily. From the get-go at Whole Foods, Sam says, union-busting language is built into the culture, phrases like “we’re a family” being leveraged to get workers to do more for less.
“That kind of coded language and messaging, ‘We take care of our workers’ and these little gifts, these bonuses are tactics like, ‘Hey we’re taking care of you, don’t try to take your power back,’” Sam says.
Amazon, Whole Foods’ parent company, has mandatory anti-union training built into its onboarding process. The company has even been reported as using heat maps to track stores that are at risk of unionizing. Amazon has been setting up anti-union websites and advertising targeting workers who are on the verge of organizing in places like Alabama and New York. There will be people trying to stop you at every turn, not to mention other life events that get in the way.
“The stark reality of one of my main organizers was that she was in the middle of getting citizenship and getting her family citizenship and didn’t have time to hop on a Zoom meeting every week,” Sam says. “At a certain point, people don’t care anymore.”
For successful unionizing, persistence is key. And that comes not just from one person, but from building a team to fight the good fight.
“Get to know your coworkers, get to know who you’re working with,” Sam says. “If you’re working in a grocery store there are probably people organizing—you just have to find them.”